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GARRY WATSON The Real Meaning of Lawrence's Advice to the Literary Critic I MODERN HERMENEUTICS AND SACRED SCRIPTURE 'Never trust the teller, trust the tale' - Dan Jacobson cleaves to Lawrence's dictum, which is indeed, a cardinal principle of modern hermeneutics, from Freud and Nietzsche to Levi-Strauss. (David Lodge)1 Rather than simply register delight at the discovery that he has finally made it into the prestigious company of Freud, Nietzsche, and LeviStrauss , Lawrence's admirers would do better, I think, to use David Lodge's remark as the occasion to raise the question as to whether or not his famous 'dictum' is, in fact, sound. But before doing this we must first ask what he meant by it. 'Never,' Lawrence actually wrote, 'trust the artist. Trust the tale.' This mayor may not be describable as 'a cardinal principle of modern hermeneutics.' But whatever it, or something like it, might have meant to Nietzsche, to Freud or to Levi-Strauss, what did Lawrence mean by it? What he is ordinarily assumed to have meant can be briefly explained with reference to Milton's Paradise Lost. Milton might, for example, have thought that what he did in this poem is 'assert Eternal Providence, / And justify the ways of God to men.' And many of its readers have agreed that this is in fact what the poem does. Other readers have felt that the poem doesn't do this at all. And some of these latter have claimed that the poem is valuable precisely because of (what they see as) its subversion of Milton's declared intention. In all such disputes, it is assumed that Lawrence is telling us to trust the tale (what the artist has actually done) rather than the artist (who may be inclined to think he has done something he hasn't). By now this is, I take it, uncontroversial. But it isn't, exactly, what Lawrence meant. Or at least, it isn't all that he meant. First of all, Lawrence's'dictum' is a piece ofadvice to the would-be critic of American literature. And so we must start off by noting the particular context, in the opening chapter of his Studies in Classic American Literature, in which Lawrence offers this advice. Here is the relevant paragraph: The artist usually sets out - or used to - to point a moral and adorn a tale. The tale, however, points the other way, as a rule. Two blankly opposing morals, UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY, VOLUME 55, NUMBER 1, FALL 1985 2 GARRY WATSON the artist's and the tale's. Never trust the artist. Trust the tale. The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it. The reason the tale has to be saved from the artist is that, of the two opposing 'morals,' the artist's can't be trusted. Itcan'tbe trusted because, as Lawrence has told us a few paragraphs earlier, the artist 'is usually a damned liar' and 'his art, if it be art,' gives us 'the only truth' there is, which Lawrence refers to as 'the truth of his [that is, the artist's] day.' 'The old American artists were/ according to Lawrence, 'hopeless liars.' And since 'they were artists, in spite of themselves,' the function of criticism is to save 'the American tale from the American artist.' From Lawrence's point of view, the old American artists are liars because of their insistence that what they are giving us is something more than just the truth of their particular day. 'Away/ says Lawrence, 'with eternal truth. Truth lives,' he insists, 'from day to day, and the marvellous Plato of yesterday is chiefly bosh to-day.'2 What it comes down to is that the old American artists are not to be trusted because of their belief in eternal truth. And the reason the tale is to be trusted is because it gives us the only truth there is: it gives us, as it were, the truth about truth: namely, that it lives, and presumably changes, from day to day. Now we soon discover, as we turn from Lawrence's Studies to his other...


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